Written and photographed by Corinne Smith
Deep in the hills of Jamaica’s north coast, the White River carves its serpentine path through luxuriant jungle and rocky gorge. Butterflies and doctorbirds flit amidst feathery ferns and wild orchids, and giant bamboo stretches to the cerulean sky. Make no mistake though; this valley is neither sacred nor magical. The road is long, winding and potholed, the drive arduous. But the journey, for that’s what it is, only begins when you enter the front gate to your White River Valley Adventure.
Rainbow cottages too pretty to be office, shop or restaurant nestle contentedly between vigilantly manicured beds of lilies, palms, gingers. Emerald lawns and sweeping verandas beckon. They call this area the Village of Flowers and everything about it says “Come, stay.”
“Good morning, Miss.” The woman behind the desk smiled; not one of those would-you-like-fries-with-that sort of smiles – it was the real thing.
We’d called the day before and were booked to do the horseback ride/river tubing combination. We exchanged bits of paper, completed the requisite formalities. It was quick and she made it painless.
She smiled again, then, “The morning pretty, you see.”
Here now, I paused. Was that meant to have a question mark after it, or was it that familiar Jamaican way of turning a question into a non-negotiable fact?
Her enthusiasm was palpable and ours was growing. She pointed us to the stables and smiled broadly again. “You going love it, you see?”
But this scene wasn’t from any Lone Ranger show I’d ever watched. The intricately carved, psychedelic flying horses on the gates at the Pineapple Riding Stable made it clear that this was not the Wild West of old.
After a quick briefing on trail safety and an eventually triumphant battle with riding helmets (those clasps!), we were introduced to our steeds. Those who needed help and reassurance got it; the guides and the horses knew what they were doing.
The ride up the valley was beautiful. Bouts of conversation and laughter alternated with an uncommon silence as the sounds of nature enveloped us – birdsong overhead, the gurgle and gush of the river below and, everywhere the rising-falling-slightly-unsettling whistle-hum of cicadas. The ride ended too soon (for this cowgirl, anyway) but the river, they assured me, would not disappoint.
Moments later we stood at the river’s edge, lifejackets fastened, paddles in hand, for a word on river safety, paddling techniques and… The words curled around me like tendrils of mist above a languid stream at dawn. I was spellbound: a stone bridge, built by Spanish settlers more than 400 years ago, arched seductively across the ultramarine water a stone’s throw from where we stood. Monet must have been here once, for inspiration. Alas, my reverie was short-lived; it was my turn to board a tube.
Our guide and entertainment for the next three miles (let’s call him Allan), offered friendly encouragement as shock and cold water beset me. “The water not cold, man, just refreshing.”
Finally settled into our modified tubes, we pushed off and made our first tentative attempts at steering. And Allan, ever-patient and wise in the ways of this river, knew exactly where he would be needed to pull a wayward tuber out of a tricky bend or a gentle eddy.
It’s hard to describe the silence that fell on us that day. It was brief, mostly, but it was also deep and contented. White sunshine surged in shafts through the forest canopy and, for a moment, we were one with the earth.
“We coming to the rapids now, folks.” There was a gleam in his eye. “Who want to go first?” Allan grew up on this river and knew its many moods like a cowboy knows his horse. He was positively beaming as he guided the first victim through the chute. “Just point you-self forward and hang on!” Screams of glee floated down the river. The rapids were exhilarating and, for a few crazy seconds, we were B-movie UFO’s skimming across the turbulence. Then, perhaps in an act of mercy, the river widened, the rapids slowed and once again we were drifting lazily along.
We glided past the Riverside Arawak Gazebos, fashioned after the huts of the gentle Arawak Indians who first inhabited this land. Janga (crayfish) soup is served fresh and hot here. We floated, perhaps irreverently, through the bamboo cathedral. We lingered on the river as long as the current would let us and when, after a blissful hour on the river, we reached the final celadon stretch, I knew we’d caught a fleeting glimpse of a simpler time, a simpler life, its simpler pleasures•